A recent study found that about 14 million household units (about 10 percent) in the United States still use steam or hot water based heat. In addition, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority reported that 15-30 percent of that energy is wasted by overheating those building units.

It’s against that backdrop that University of Illinois Electrical and Computer Engineering student Christopher Moy and a team of engineers are creating a system called “MyHome,” which can help regulate how much heat is produced by these relics called radiators and thus virtually eliminating wasted heat.

“We conducted a small survey of 100-150 people in Chicago asking them how big of a problem it was for them and what a reasonable solution might look like,” Moy said. “Over 80 percent of respondents talked about how much they hated their radiators.”

For Moy, a native of Chicago, the problem hits close to home. He notes that the average building in the city was built before 1950, long before central heating became the standard, and estimates that half of the 577,000 apartment units in Chicago were built using radiator heat. Because those buildings are constantly occupied, there is no incentive for landlords to update their water-based heating systems so most of them remain anchored in the past.

 “The biggest disadvantage of a radiator system is you have to constantly change the valve setting to adjust the temperature. It’s common for the room to get so hot that you eventually have to open a window,” noted Moy. “Every time you do that, you’re literally throwing energy out the window.”

A typical radiator uses a thermostatic radiator valve, which has a wax plug inside.

Depending on the local temperature, the plug will contract or expand pushing a small pin in and out which opens or closes a regulating valve. Because it’s localized, the consumer is regulating the heat at the radiator. If the area you really want to regulate, say around a couch or bed, is on the opposite side of the room, it may be getting too much or too little heat.

The MyHome system consists of three components. First, it has a temperature sensor (essentially a digital thermometer), which you can place remotely anywhere in the room. The sensor sends the temperature to the second component, the base station that can be hard-wired to a wireless router.  The consumer is then able adjust the desired temperature via smart phone app. The base controls the third component, a motorized radiator valve, which adjusts the pin and controls the amount of heat the radiator produces based on the temperature at the important control zone instead of the local area of the radiator. Essentially, it works like a smart thermostat for a building without central heating.

One base station can control all the radiators in a home, and because the temperature settings are regulated through a smart phone, the consumer can control all the radiators from anywhere.

One base station can control all the radiators in a home, and because the temperature settings are regulated through a smart phone, the consumer can control any and all the radiators from anywhere in the world.

“Our product is modular, so once you have a base station, there are significantly less additional expansion costs,” Moy said. “You may buy extra valves for each radiator, but they can all connect to the same base station.”

The group is currently finishing the computer-aided design (CAD) model for the very first design valves and is working toward an app that will work on both on iOS and Android. They hope to have a prototype in the near future and anticipate that the finished package will retail for around $200 each, which consumers would recoup in energy savings in just a few months.

 “We really believe in this,” Moy said. “Some people make a product because they just see an opportunity to make money. The reason we’re making this because it actually solves a problem we have gone through and a lot of our friends have gone through.”